Holding Up 4 Fingers – Its Meaning, Origin and Usage

Have you been casually enjoying your favorite YouTube vlogger and noticed that they keep holding 4 fingers up and then closing their fingers over their thumb without any other context? Or maybe you’ve seen photos circulating of people holding 4 solemn fingers up whilst looking at the camera? This modern symbolic gesture has seen a rise in awareness over the last few years, but it can be confusing if you’ve seen anyone explain what it actually means. 

Well don’t worry. This post will unpack the meaning, origin, and usage of the gesture of holding up four fingers.

Warning: This post contains references to domestic violence.

The Meaning of Holding Up 4 Fingers

The first meaning that we will acknowledge is in relation to sports. In football, the sign of holding up four fingers means that the game is about to (or has just) entered its fourth quarter. You might see players or coaches hold up four fingers during games to signal this to anyone unaware. 

However, the more common and more online usage of the act of holding up 4 fingers is associated with domestic violence. This symbol is used as a kind of unspoken signal that the person holding up their fingers is in danger but unable to get help for themselves without being in more danger. 

Typically, this symbol involves raising your palm to the camera, tucking your thumb across your palm (leaving four fingers up), then trapping your thumb with your fingers. 

Generally this sign is used by people experiencing domestic violence as a signal to their followers or friends that they need to get in contact with police to protect them. Sometimes, in these situations, expressing that you need help can put you in immediate danger, and so this silent expression is actually a cry for help. 

The downside is that this gesture is only effective if other people know what it means, and that’s why it is incredibly important to spread this definition around so that more people can be aware of it and support people when they’re in danger. On the other hand, the anonymity and low awareness means that the perpetrators of abuse are more likely to be unaware of it, allowing the victim to remain safe whilst asking for help. It’s a difficult line to toe. 

It is also possible that this symbol can be used to “troll” or prank other social media users, which muddies the water even more. 

Examples of Holding Up 4 Fingers

I was FaceTiming with my friend and her partner when she held up four fingers silently as soon as he walked away. I think I should try to help get her out of that house. 

This influencer has been holding up four fingers in his last five posts, I think something must be wrong. We should flag this as containing content for law enforcement. 

Oh no! That coach is holding up four fingers, do you think he’s in danger? No? It’s just the fourth quarter of the game? Oh, okay. 

Other Ways to Say Holding Up 4 Fingers

Because this is a symbolic gesture, there aren’t really any other synonymous phrases that are applicable. However, any gesture that suggests that someone is struggling or in a dangerous situation that they can’t talk about could be seen as another way to convey the same meaning. 

Using The Act Of Holding Up 4 Fingers

This is an act that can be easily misinterpreted. However, if you are posting on social media, streaming, or having a video call with someone, and you need to convey to them that you are in a dangerous situation but can’t talk aloud about it for risk of being in more immediate danger, then you can hold up four fingers, or face your palm to the camera, tuck your thumb in, then cover it, and hope that they understand. 

Remember: Palm to the camera and tuck thumb. Trap thumb

However, this symbol has been misused or as a deliberate attempt to mislead other users. 

Origins of Holding Up 4 Fingers

The origin of holding up 4 fingers then covering them has been heavily disputed throughout the internet, with no one able to discern where exactly it started. It has been discussed far more than it has actually been used to get someone out of a dangerous situation, which leads people to question how effective it is as a sign of danger. 

The reason it’s 4 fingers could be something to do with the fact that the word four is very similar to the word for “Death” in Chinese. 

The idea that this signal is some kind of emergency sign apparently originated on TikTok since 2020, particularly throughout the Covid-19 lockdowns where people were stuck in their homes, potentially with their abusers. Whilst many people were having their daily or weekly video calls with friends or family, some people would sneak in the symbol of raising their palm to the camera, holding up 4 fingers, then closing their fingers over their thumb without the potential perpetrator being aware that they’d done anything. 

However, there have been very few instances where this action has been reported to have been effective.